In November 1872, George Smith was working at the British Museum in a second-floor room overlooking the bare plane trees in Russell Square. On a long table were pieces of clay tablets, among the hundreds of thousands that archaeologists had shipped back to London from Nineveh, in present-day Iraq, a quarter-century before. Many of the fragments bore cuneiform hieroglyphs, and over the years scholars had managed to reassemble parts of some tablets, deciphering for the first time these records of daily life in Assyria of the 7th and 8th centuries B.C.â€”references to oxen, slaves, casks of wine, petitions to kings, contracts, treaties, prayers and omens.
As scholars go, Smith, 32 years old, was an anomaly; he had ended his formal education at age 14 when he was apprenticed to a printer, and perhaps it was because of his training as an engraver that he had such a knack for assembling coherent passages of cuneiform out of the drawers and drawers of old rubble. In fact, Smith had already established dates for a couple of minor events in Israelite history, and on this brisk fall day he was looking for other references that might confirm parts of the Bible. Then, on a fragment of a tablet, he came across a story that would soon astonish the Western world. He read of a flood, a ship caught on a mountain and a bird sent out in search of dry landâ€”the first independent confirmation of a vast flood in ancient Mesopotamia, complete with a Noah-like figure and an ark.